. . . The decision to return to digital was the result of several months of inner debating. My reasons for abandoning film were covered in a previous post I’m Moving Back To Digital
Now as you’ve no doubt guessed from the title (and the photograph), the camera I have purchased to take over the role of my ONLY street camera is the Fuji X-E1 with the Fujinon 18-55mm f/2.8 – f/4 XF Mount Lens.
I hesitate to use the phrase ‘kit lens’, as traditionally such lenses included with a new camera are of questionable quality.
This lens is most definitely not one of those as will become apparent (I’m talking Leica image quality here).
With this review, I am intentionally going to steer clear of the technical side of the camera and lens, as well as avoiding scientific tests, pixel peeping, producing charts, or comparing it to a long list of current or recent cameras. There are no end of very well written tests and reviews covering this and only a quick search away.
This review is from the point of view of a seriously enthusiastic Street Photographer. Someone who has shot both digital and analogue rangefinders, mainly Leica and the occasional SLR/DSLR, and as a result, likes to shoot fully Manual or Aperture Priority with Manual Focus. Here goes . . .
Let me start by saying, I love this camera. Even if only from a cosmetic point of view, you can’t help but be knocked sideways by it. The black metal top plate, complete with both manual shutter and exposure compensation dials, instantly lets you know this is a seriously competent piece of kit.
Upon handling the camera, I was struck by how solid and ‘dense’ it felt. It’s obviously well made, though is refreshingly lighter than my previous Leica M5 and even the M8. The ‘important’ controls land exactly where they should. The shutter button requires no reaching with the index finger, the shutter dial can be changed swiftly and without fuss. I like the on/off switch, which reminds me of that from the M8. The very useful Function Button is a marvelous addition. I have it set for ISO. So everything in that area is spot-on.
Moving to the other ‘end’, the lens features both aperture, focusing and zoom rings, all of which have a wonderfully tactile feel, with good indents on the aperture but no markings. The focusing ring moves smoothly with just the right amount of drag, and since the recent 1.06 firmware update, has a perfectly ‘natural’ travel and precision. The zoom from 18-55 (27-83 in 35mm) is very smooth and glitch free. In all, the lens feels very well made.
There is however one unfathomable area of the lens design which is surely a massive oversight by the entire design and development team (?). The aperture and focus rings are located the wrong way round. The focus is at the front of the lens and the aperture is at the back, close to the body.
This has been the biggest stumbling block, but with two days of ‘on the job’ practice, is becoming less of an obstacle. I approached this camera realising there would be some different ways of doing things and that to stubbornly resist these changes would cause nothing but stress and disappointment. As both the rings are fly-by-wire, maybe a menu option to change this is something that could be addressed in a future update?
Next up is the EVF. This has been a bone of contention with many, though is something I have fully embraced. With it’s very high resolution OLED display, the view through it is both bright and pin sharp. In fact, after just a few minutes of use, I had completely forgotten that it wasn’t an OVF, such was the clarity of vision. Dare I say, it’s better and more usable than a Leica’s and packed with every piece of information you could hope for, all of which is customizable. There’s even a Dioptre wheel.
Also, I’ve found none of the often mentioned delay in low light. Rather, when the ambient light dims, the viewfinder demonstrates a slight ‘shimmer’, which in practice isn’t unpleasant or a hindrance.
One thing I discovered quite quickly is regarding the Auto-Power Off. I had left it set to the standard 2 minutes, however lifting the camera to my eye to take the first shot in 5 minutes, I pressed the shutter button and instead of taking the picture, I woke the camera up. Needless to say, I changed the setting to ‘always on’. I only shoot using the EVF and rarely ‘chimp’, so battery life is pretty much unchanged.
Manual focusing is also really easy such is the clarity of the image, making it very obvious when the subject is in focus. Also, by pressing the control wheel, then turning left or right, you can select a 3 or 10x magnified view to aid in focusing, but I haven’t found it necessary. Fuji has also announced that on the 23rd July ’13, they will be releasing a firmware update (2.0) which will add Focus Peaking, though I don’t feel it’s needed as I grew up with manual focusing. I’m sure it will be a hugely popular feature though, which can only be a good thing.
If this wasn’t enough, there is the superb AE-L / AF-L button on the rear-top-right of the thumb rest. With the viewfinder to your eye and MF enabled, just a quick press of this will instantly ‘snap’ the lens to the correct focus of wherever you are pointing the camera. This is a really useful and time saving feature, especially if the subject distance is way different to where the lens is set. This has enabled me to capture a shot I would previously have missed with film.
Onto the shutter and in particular, the response time and volume. I was relieved to find that with MF selected and Zone Focused, the reaction time of the shutter was instantaneous. And that’s without a half-press. There is for me nothing more satisfying than the ‘direct’ feel I usually associate with a mechanical camera. However, with AF (which I don’t use) there is a slightly longer delay and a more ‘disconnected’ feeling. Also, it’s reassuring to hear the sound of a real shutter working away inside, a high quality ‘schunk’. At no point however is it too loud, intrusive or oppressive and on a par with any analogue Leica.
I only shoot JPEG and the reasons are many. Firstly, the Fuji JPEG engine is superb. Shot on the highest quality with all in-camera settings at normal and with a simple conversion in SilverEfex 2, I would challenge anyone to get more out of a RAW file. Indeed, many are trying because they believe that you will get more from RAW. This may have been true in the past, but Fuji have really turned a corner with the X-E1 & X-Pro1.
Secondly and as I’ve mentioned previously, I really like the conversions obtainable in SilverEfex. Now the problem is that I use Lightroom 2 and Photoshop CS3. The earliest Adobe Camera Raw that can open the X-E1 Raw files is version 7.1. This doesn’t run in LR2 or CS3. I could upgrade to LR4, but this doesn’t run in Windows XP (which I have), only Vista or later.
I could ‘develop’ the RAW files in the RAW converter supplied with the camera, however SilverEfex doesn’t run in Fuji RAW Converter and the converted file would be a JPEG anyway. So I may as well shoot in JPEG only. Pheww. 🙂
The way the camera fits in the hand required some getting accustomed to. Due to the large number of buttons on the rear of the body, it takes a little time to find a comfortable place for the thumb so as to be sure that you’re not activating or changing something. I reckon a Thumb Rest could help greatly and also make the handhold more secure. To that end, I have ordered a cheap ‘chinese’ hotshoe-mounted alloy Thumb Rest in the style of the ThumbsUp from Amazon here. It is ridiculously cheap.
Battery life so far is rather good and far better than I used to get from the Leica M8. I’m currently getting around 350 shots per charge. I have bought another battery to be on the safe side and a cheap travel charger (both from Amazon here and here) that runs from the 12 volt Cigar Lighter in the Camper Van. This was necessary as 240 volt mains is hard to find elsewhere.
The standard strap is quite nice and wraps around my wrist ok for holding in one hand between shots. I will keep my eye out for something else though for no reason that I can think of. 😀
So in summary, I have been pleasantly suprised and delighted with the X-E1 and 18-55 Lens combo’. The Fujinon glass has been a real eye opener. The fact that they are able to produce a kit lens of such incredibly high build and image quality, is simply stunning. One can’t help but wonder that if Leica made an M-Mount Zoom (maybe the Tri-Elmar is close) it would be priced somewhere around the £2500 – £3000 mark, not the approximately £400 price point of the Fujinon. I’m already considering and looking for a decent used 35mm f/1.4. Now that is supposed to produce incredible results.
Ultimately however, the biggest revelation was how quickly I was able to ‘fit into’ the camera and how so perfectly it seemed to ‘disappear’ whilst shooting it.
I take my hat off to Fuji for an incredible achievement. Just 3 years ago, Fuji were associated with mediocre P&S cameras. The thought of giving up Leica’s and film for a Fuji would, for me at least, have been laughable.
If you are considering moving to a smaller, lighter, cheaper priced and high quality Compact Camera System, my money is on the Fuji X-E1 and Fujinon Lenses.
If you’re thinking of buying a used Fuji X-E1, there are often several to chose from on eBay UK here.